Three candidates for Drew County judge were in agreement on several issues during a debate sponsored by the Leadership Council of Ward I Monday night, but differentiated themselves from their opponents when asked what they could bring to the office that their opponents could not.

Robin Hood, the Democratic candidate, touted his grant writing abilities, while Jessie Griffin, the Republican candidate, pointed to his leadership abilities and Robert Akin, an independent, said he has 30 years experience in the private sector, specifically the construction business.

Hood, the chief deputy sheriff in the Drew County Sheriff’s Office, said he brings a lot of funds into the county through grant-writing.

“I write grants all the time,” Hood said. “I just got one recently for several thousand dollars.”

While he acknowledged that his opponents have leadership skills, Griffin, a retired U.S. Army sergeant major, said he developed leadership skills during his 26 years in the military that he believes are above and beyond his opponents’ leadership abilities.

“I think leadership is the ultimate thing that I can bring to the table that I think is above and beyond the other two gentlemen,” Griffin said. “I’m not saying they don’t have leadership (skills), they do have.”

Akin, who started his own construction business, said he has worked for 30 years in the private sector. That background, he believes, would be an asset in county road construction and maintenance, and he knows how to treat people.

“I’ve got 30 years to back me up in construction, whether it was on roadways, whether it was in the paper mill or chemical plant,” Akin said.

Asked if they would support a millage increase to fund county general, Griffin said he would not, Hood said not “at this time,” and Akin said only in the event of an emergency.

“I think what we have to do is figure out, at this time, exactly how much money we have and what we need to spend it on,” Griffin said. “No ma’am, I’m not in favor of raising the millage. I’m not in favor of raising taxes.”

Hood said he was opposed to a millage increase “at this time” because county voters recently approved the continuation of a millage to fund improvements at Drew Memorial Hospital, a sales tax to construct a  new library, and will have an election sometime after the first of the year to continue the sales tax to fund county road maintenance and improvements.

“We’re operating on a 1986-87 millage and it needs to be (increased) but at this time with the economy the way it is, unless something comes about that would prove different, I don’t think we could ask the people to raise the millage,” Hood said. “I’d like to, but at this particular time, no. Something could change and we might see somewhere in the future we might but at this particular time, no.”

Because the millage is based on a percentage of property values, Akin said there is already a built-in increase.

For example, a house that was worth $100,000 in 1985 is now worth $200,000. Therefore, property owners are paying twice as much in taxes on that house than they were in 1985 when the millage was last increased, Akin said.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t be in favor of one later if there was an emergency and we needed it,” Akin said. “I’m not going to ever say ‘no more taxes’. I remember George Bush saying that and he got beat. So, sometime there might be a need but what we’ve got to do as a community is to learn to live within our means.”

Asked if they would continue the current road maintenance and improvement plan or do they have a plan of their own, Akin and Hood both said they could continue the current road plan but perhaps widen some of the more narrow roads.

Griffin said he would sit down with the county road foreman and develop a 3-phase priority plan identifying projects, adjusting as needed.

“Can we continue to pave the roads at the same pace that we have in the past?” Griffin said. “No, we can’t, because we’ve got to maintain what we’ve got now. Like Mr. Akin said, we’ve got great roads and we’ve got to continue to do that. Will I get everybody off a gravel road and onto a chip and seal (road)? It’s possible in some cases; some cases might not. There are some parts of the state that are now picking up the chip and seal and going back to gravel because of the expense, so we have to be careful. Let’s say, for example, that the one-cent sales tax does not pass. What do we do? You continue to maintain what you’ve got the best way you can.”

Given that the county judge makes nominations to local boards, which of course must be confirmed by the quorum court, the candidates were asked how they would approach that duty.

Hood said he would seek out the person he believes is the most qualified. “I would try to be as fair as I could and seek the person I thought would fit into that type of setting and into that position… and present it to the quorum court.”

Griffin said he would first ask the current board member if he or she would be interested in being reappointed. If not, he would ask the current board members who they would recommend.

Akin said he would consider a person’s profession and experience.

“First, I’ll ask them if they’re interested in (the appointment),” Akin said. “Probably the worst job in America is to get on a board that doesn’t pay anything, because you catch all the heat.”

Akin said if a position opened up on the Drew Memorial Hospital Board, for example, he would want someone from the medical field. If there was an opening on the library board he would want someone from the educational field.

The candidates were also asked how they would utilize the current library property after the new library is built.

After checking to see if there are any environmental issues to address, Griffin said he would ask the community how it would like to see it utilized but he does have two ideas of his own.

“The two that I have right now that jump up at me is the juvenile court — that’s one of the biggest problems we have in the county right now — and I’ll also throw this out too: maybe talking to the sheriff and see if he wants to move the sheriff’s department over there.”

Another idea, he said, that’s “out there” is to sell it to the First United Methodist Church across the street.

He said he would take all of the ideas to the quorum court for a decision.

Akin said it would be an excellent location for court but believes it would also be a good location for a community center for family reunions and functions such as that.

Hood agreed that it would be a good location for district and juvenile court. “I don’t know if it would work but it’s something I’ve thought of since it came about,” Hood said. “I thought it would be an ideal place (for court), especially for juvenile court.”

Regarding the renewal of the county road tax and the construction of the new library, Akin said he will campaign for continuation of the road tax and will make sure all of the quorum court members are doing the same. “It is imperative that we keep it to keep these roads up,” Akin said. “The maintenance is expensive.”

Hood and Griffin agreed.

“We’ve got to campaign for it and the quorum court members are going to have to go to bat for us and see that the one-cent sales tax stays in place,” Hood said. “It’s not something new that we’re trying to get passed, it’s the same one we’ve had and it’s got to stay there.”

“We’re all a fan of the road tax,” Griffin said. “Whoever is elected will campaign for it; we’ve got to have it. If it doesn’t happen, the county is not shutting down (but there will be) some services the people in the county will not receive.”

Asked about the construction of the new library, Akin said the county must be mindful of contractors’ change orders. As a contractor, Akin said he knows how bids work and knows how to deal with change orders that, if not watched carefully, can drive up the cost of a project.

“I can’t do anything but reiterate what (Akin) said about the library,” Hood said. “That’s just a no-brainer.”

Griffin agreed that they have to watch the library construction for potential overruns.

“Will the library, today, be the same cost as when we build it?” Griffin said. “No, it’ll be higher because of the cost of materials and things of that nature going up. Once it’s bid and we get that bid locked in… we have to stay pretty close to that. Will there be things that happen along the way? You betcha, but that’s why you have that library board and with the leadership and who is in charge of that and (with) input from the county judge I think we can get a good library built that’s going to be beneficial to the community.”

Asked by a member of the audience how the Southeast Arkansas Intermodal Authority costs can be controlled and how to address authority members’ absenteeism, Griffin said he supports the construction of the facility but acknowledged that there was a $17,000 increase in the cost of some pipe because they failed to sign a contract within 90 days and there was some absenteeism during the summer months when individual board members were on their summer vacations.

“I am impressed with the people who are on the board once they finally get their stuff together,” Griffin said. “The problem they have is those people being available in the summertime, as I saw it…. but once they have their quorum together, they move along. I’m in favor of this facility that’s being built. I think it’s going to bring money to south Arkansas.”

Griffin said the biggest problem he has seen is the Authority got ahead of itself on some contracts and let some contracts before it had the money, but that has been solved.

“So, I think with the leadership they’ve got on that board — not only from Drew County, but the other participants — I think we’re going to be OK with the Intermodal.”

Echoing Griffin’s remarks, Hood said the cost of the pipe increased when the contract wasn’t signed but it has been corrected.

“If it can get up and running, it can bring money and revenue. It can bring industry. It can bring a distribution center,” Hood said. “If they can ever get the railway built, it can bring a lot of shipping in and out of Drew County that some of us have seen here in times past that would really make us a boom town.”

Akin said each of the four entities – Drew and Bradley counties and Monticello and Warren — have spent nearly $1 million each on the proposed intermodal facility but he sees as an investment for the future.

“I’ve got a daughter that’s 17 and I’ve got one that’s 29 and neither one of them will get to work in Monticello, Arkansas because we don’t have enough funds in this area to pay people who get an education at our own college,” Akin said. “So, what I want to do is to try to bring some jobs.”

Calling the potential of the intermodal facility “huge,” Akin sees it as a vehicle to stimulate the economy and bring well-paying jobs to the area.

“We’ve spent some money. Are we going to keep spending money? I hope so. I hope we haven’t thrown $4 million away,” Akin said. “It’s not just a pipe dream anymore. They’ve got the road in there and they’ve got the sewer in there. We’re going to build this thing… but it’s a work in progress for maybe the next 10 years.”

A member of the audience asked the candidates, if elected, would they hire a family member or friend if they were not qualified for the job. They all said no.

In his closing comments, Griffin said he is disappointed in voters who fail to vote on issues affecting their county.

When going door-to-door campaigning, Griffin said he tells voters that he spent 26 years in the service so that they would have the right to vote.

“I tell the people standing at the door, ‘here’s my little fact sheet about me. Compare Mr. Hood and compare Mr. Akin and compare Mr. Griffin. Once you get through comparing, you’ve got one vote. I spent 26 years for you to have that one vote. You decide, leaving family, friends and party out of it, and you vote for the best person. Period. That’s the only thing you can do. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or whatever…’” Griffin said.

If elected, Griffin said, he will ask the justices of the peace to do a lot of things in their respective community.

He also addressed a rumor that county employees would lose their jobs if he is elected.

“I was stopped by a county employee the other day coming out of the courthouse and he said, ‘Mr. Jessie, if you get elected am I going to lose my job?'” Griffin said. “I asked him why and he said ‘the rumor is if you’re elected all of the Drew County employees are getting fired.’ Rumor. That’s exactly what it is, but the rumor is going around town. It’s not going to happen. If Jessie Griffin gets elected I’m not firing county employees. Period.”

Addressing economic development, Griffin said it is not the county judge’s job to bring jobs to Drew County. It is the county judge’s job to make sure the county has the infrastructure in place to attract new industry.

In Hood’s closing comments, he said he has more than 30 years experience in city, county and state government; has two bachelor’s degrees and a masters degree; knows how to write grants to help fund county government; can budget and supervise; and knows how to build roads.

“The Drew County judge is an administrator and that’s what I plan to be is an administrator,” Hood said. “I want to be your Drew County judge. I want to be what you, the people, want me to be. I want to be a person for all of the people of Drew County. I want to work for you, for you, the people of Drew County… and I want us to help Drew County grow, grow and continue to grow and be the best county in the state of Arkansas….”

Akin used his closing to address the qualities his opponents said they can bring to the table that their opponents could not.

“On the grant situation, I’ve got a grant-writer in mind that’s 100 percent,” Akin said. “When I say 100 percent, I mean she’s never been turned down. I’ll name her after I get elected.

Weighing in on his supervisory experience, Akin said he has supervised a lot of people. “I never treated but one (person) wrong and I’ve apologized to him two or three times over it,” he said.

Akin says the county judge needs to be more than an administrator; he needs to be a representative.

While walking the streets of Jerome, Winchester, Wilmar, Monticello and other cities in Drew County during his campaign, Akin said he saw things that shouldn’t be going on, and if elected he will take those issues wherever he needs to take them to get them addressed.

“There are city sewers in our county that are open-drain sewers that run across the top of the ground,” Akin said. “That’s embarrassing. That’s embarrassing on any scale. If it takes jumping on a congressman’s desk, or calling a U.S. Senator, or whatever it takes – that doesn’t need to go on in this county in this day and time. That’s third world country stuff….”

Regardless who is elected to Congress from the fourth district, Akin said they will hear from him. “I’m going to be there and they’re going to hear from me,” he said, “I promise you.”

Akin, whose company was hired to take apart the former Burlington plant and ship it to China, said the county lost 1,500 jobs when Burlington closed. “They need to be brought back,” he said.

“There’s some help that’s got to happen and I’m willing to do it,” Akin said.